Palm’s accident of timing

It’s about time something went Palm’s way. And now, suddenly, everything seems to be going Palm’s way. They blew everyone away at CES, are getting tons of positive press in the national media, and now, their biggest rival in the mobile space looks primed to falter.

I don’t think anyone at Palm was rooting for Jobs to step down for health reasons, but the situation is what it is. Currently the mobile market is Apple’s to lose, but their hold is a lot more tenuous than it initially appears. No one has a lock on the still growing mobile market, no one has established numerical dominance, and Apple’s early lead in a field that has only just recently penetrated the consciousness of “normal” consumers could easily repeat their early lead in personal computing, and we see how that turned out.

And now, Apple is losing their rudder. Steve Jobs, the “tyrant with exceptional taste” that has driven Apple in all their successful years, is taking an indefinite leave of absence from the company. He says he’ll be back by summer, but given how much he’s publically underestimated his health problems already, many analysts think this is really the end of the Jobs era and he won’t be coming back, ever. As 2009 wears on, Tim Cook will officially lead the company he’s been de facto leading for a while now.

But there will be a difference. Cook may have kept the trains running on time, but Jobs was the visionary. Jobs was the creative force behind Apple’s big moves. Without him, Apple will have a tendency to coast, to continue doing what they know already works and stop innovating. (It’s worth noting that the internal force at Apple really responsible for two of their big Jobs 2.0 innovations, the first iMac and the iPod, is Palm’s Jon Rubenstein.)

So Palm may have an opportunity here to swipe smartphone dominance out from under a sleeping Apple. If the Pre really is everything people like about the iPhone and fixes everything people don’t like about the iPhone, Palm really could have the trifecta of industry-defining devices (Pilot, Treo, Pre) and take the lead as the company everyone else wants to beat. Before CES, I wouldn’t have bet that Palm could execute well enough to take advantage of that opportunity, but now I’m not so sure. Ed Colligan’s experience with mobile and the cell phone market combined with Jon Rubenstein’s knack for innovation and design are proving a tough combination to beat.